‘We Bought a Zoo’ Review (2011)

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We Bought a Zoo movie review
Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought a Zoo has a bubble gum, after school inanity to it that makes it rather inconsequential. In telling the true story of a father that has just lost his wife to cancer and is left to raise his young daughter and teenage son, Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) have adapted Benjamin Mee’s book of the same name into a modestly budgeted Hallmark Channel movie.

To boil it down, We Bought a Zoo plays like a feature film version of an Apple iPhone commercial, mixing music from Bob Dylan, a unique score from Jonsi of the Icelandic experimental band Sigur Ros, cleverly scripted dialogue and a cast that inhabits this world with relative ease. It’s catchy, you smile, you think you like it and it’s tolerable, but the more it wears on the less interested you become, realizing each passing minute is really no different than the last and nothing you couldn’t have anticipated from the film’s trailer has happened.

The story begins with a brief introduction to Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventure-seeking journalist who’s just lost his wife and is left to care for his 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old daughter Rosie, played by the magnetic Maggie Elizabeth Jones. Benjamin has recently quit his job, unwilling to be coddled as print journalism begins to give way to the Internet and he’s left looking for answers. Rosie is wise beyond her years and Dylan is in a funk, recently expelled from school and frequently sulking while drawing apocalyptic imagery in his sketchpad.

In need of a new school district and a fresh start, Benjamin ignores the cautionary advice of his older brother (a frequently comical Thomas Haden Church) and ultimately decides on buying a rundown local zoo that has a house attached and a small staff. It’s a big task and while Rosie is excited, Dylan is miserable, but given the twee nature of the opening 30 minutes you can pretty much guarantee everything is going to work out.

On staff at this mini-zoo you get your new love interest in resident zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a mad cap maintenance man (Angus Macfadyen), the kid with the monkey on his shoulder (Patrick Fugit) and the 13-year-old pixie dream girl Lily played by Elle Fanning, and I don’t think I need to tell you what role she’ll play in this film if you’ve been paying any attention up to this point. The only other character worth mentioning is the cartoonish John Michael Higgins who plays a dreaded USDA inspector who holds the fate of the zoo in the palm of his hands as they prepare the grounds so they can be approved to re-open for visitors in July.

There’s trouble with a bear and a tiger, locks won’t work, rain gets in the way and the snakes briefly get loose, but it is all tidied up with such ease the film simply bounces from one scene to the next with little care or concern. Admittedly, where the story lacks in imagination it makes up in some decent writing as I did find myself laughing and/or smiling quite often, the latter of which seems to be the film’s only real intent.

When compared to Crowe’s more daring outings such as Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, We Bought a Zoo seems like an odd choice for a director coming off a six year hiatus following the disappointing results of 2005’s Elizabethtown. If you were expecting some sort of bold statement from Crowe’s return to filmmaking, this isn’t it, that is unless the statement is to say he just wanted to get a film under his belt so he could move on to the next thing. If so, mission accomplished.

Nevertheless, We Bought a Zoo is one of those films I have a hard time coming down too hard on even though it feels as if it was pretty much completed by the time the script and soundtrack were settled on. Nothing inside the film feels as if it was cared for as much as the brief moments of fun dialogue or the decision to place this song here and that song there with the increasingly popular (and admittedly effective) sounds of Sigur Ros leading the way amidst the sun-dappled cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain).

It’s a story without challenge and that shines through in the final 15 or so minutes as continuous obstacles get in the way of the end credits. As if the five minute joke about the 18-mile trip to get butter wasn’t time consuming enough.

Everything said, families and younger audiences should love this. Ages seven and below, have at it, but it really doesn’t serve any great interest of mine, no matter how innocent it is.

GRADE: C+